Pope expected to appeal for peace at UN appearance
DATELINE: NEW YORK
NEW YORK Playing his dual roles as head of state and spiritual leader, Pope Benedict XVI on Friday becomes only the third pope to address the United Nations General Assembly, an institution where his church enjoys an unusual and sometimes controversial status.
The pope is likely to call for peace and international cooperation in a message that, while not specifically Catholic in content, will emphasize spiritual values at a place that has been described as relentlessly secular.
“Coming to the UN as a pilgrim of peace, he will say that we cannot base our relations on the false notion that might makes right, that we cannot build our future on a simple balance of power,” said Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s UN representative. “Our future must be based on respect for universal truths and our common humanity.”
Migliore said the pope would probably not dwell on specific world crises, such as the Iraq war or conflict in the Middle East. Among the more likely topics, experts say, are the importance of building cultural understanding and preserving the environment.
The pope already has said he wants to highlight the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he considers a moral constitution for the world. He may also invoke the idea of religious freedom, a value of American democracy he has come to appreciate.
A tiny nation-within-a-city, the Vatican is a “permanent observer” to the UN, not a voting member. Despite its size, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 176 nations. Its diplomats can participate in debates, and it is accorded many privileges of membership.
“Being able to speak on panels and participate in meetings is very good for the Vatican here,” said Edward Luck, director of studies at the International Peace Academy, a think-tank that works closely with the UN. “Much of the foreign policy of the Vatican coincides with the priorities and principles of the UN _ peace, human rights, and development.”
Some critics say the Holy See has wielded its influence to block or water down statements about contraception, abortion and homosexuality.
“While the Holy See has the right to a voice at the United Nations, we believe that it should only be as loud as other religions,” said Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, which opposes the church’s anti-abortion stance. “This status that the Holy See has can affect the health and lives of millions and millions of people around the world.”
Vatican analyst John Allen, who has written two books about Pope Benedict, said the pope believes environmental issues are the most promising way to persuade the world to follow natural law, the rule of conduct that Catholics believe is prescribed by God, including respect for human dignity and life. That is why, since becoming pope, the pontiff has taken particular interest in the environment, Allen said. He has had solar panels installed at the Vatican and declared it a “carbon neutral” state.
“There are rules out there in nature,” Allen said. “If we transgress those rules _ warming up the planet beyond what it can handle and polluting _ we will pay a price. If people acknowledge that about the environment, maybe they’ll acknowledge that in other areas of life as well: personal morality, international relations and so on. His attraction to environmentalism is a stepping stone to recovering natural law.”
A priority of the Holy See at the UN is fostering dialogue among civilizations. Though some of the pope’s statements have angered Muslims, Jews and other Christians, Benedict sees religious belief as a common moral anchor. The Vatican is “very concerned that this idea of a clash of civilizations does not inform Western government,” said Rob Shelledy, who teaches international relations at Marquette University. “It’s more important in terms of a dialogue with Islam and strengthening the relationship between Western religions and Islam to make sure Islam isn’t hijacked by the violent people who are attempting to do that.”
Pope Benedict will command considerable attention at the UN simply by virtue of his office, said Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby. But his challenge will be to captivate listeners. Appleby recalled the drama of Pope Paul VI’s speech in 1965, when he pleaded, “War never again!”
The Catholic church had a status then that years of declining attendance and scandal have diminished.
“It’s more of a post-Catholic moment where he has to build an audience,” said Appleby. “There won’t be an automatic deference to what he has to say, and therefore the message has to be … morally compelling and also politically savvy.”
Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued an invitation to the pope when the two leaders met last year at the Vatican.
“We are facing a lot of problems these days,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said earlier this week. “We need very strong spiritual support from the pope.”
(Chicago Tribune reporters Margaret Ramirez and Manya A. Brachear contributed to this report.)
This article originally appeared in the 17 April 2008 edition of the Chicago Tribune.